If you think it’s hard to drum up venture capital these days for a promising Internet startup or a home-based business going corporate, imagine trying to coax investors to support deep-sea diving to discover old shipwrecks. And we’re not talking treasure hunters looking for Spanish gold off the Florida Keys, either.
Ian Koblick and Craig Mullen have been exploring the deep for a combined 90 years, founding a nonprofit known as the AURORA Trust in 2004 to support deep-sea research and archaeology in the Mediterranean Sea. Last year, the pair discovered the sunken British submarine HMS Olympus off the coast of Malta. Nearly 100 sailors were onboard when the vessel hit a mine in 1942, and only nine survived. Koblick and Mullen have also found and documented 22 ancient shipwrecks, including one from the 7th century, the oldest wreck ever found in the western Mediterranean.
“These finds have all been interesting,” Koblick says. “When you find something that’s been lying on the bottom of the sea for 2,000 years, it’s very personal—imagining what was going on in the minds of the people on that vessel… and their fear.” In one recent shipwreck, Kublick says his team found a rosary bead that had obviously been crushed by a molar. “Someone had been saying their prayers when going overboard 600 years ago,” he says.
Artifacts from AURORA’s finds end up in museums and research institutions all over Europe and the United States. But the foundation, like so many nonprofits, had been struggling in the wake of the economic downturn. While philanthropic donations to AURORA have typically amounted to around $1 million annually, the foundation has seen a serious dip in the last few years. To continue doing their deep-sea archaeological research, Koblick and Mullen turned to for-profit operations.
It happened by accident really. “We were doing nonprofit survey work,” Koblick explains, “and we decided it was a good way to cover our costs.” So the two began stepping up their commercial survey services, doing jobs for European governments, a wind farm—even one job measuring sand on the ocean floor to prepare for a harbor dredging project.
Now the new commercial ventures provide about 20 to 25 percent of the financial support for AURORA. And the side benefit to marketing these new commercial ventures is that it gives more attention to AURORA’s nonprofit efforts. “Our work in the Mediterranean is not only fun,” Koblick says, “but by publicizing it, people start to realize there is so much down there we don’t know about.”
How to Use Profit to Support a Nonprofit
If you’re heading a nonprofit and feeling the pinch of rough economic times, consider doing what AURORA did and evaluating how you might turn your organization’s skill base into a for-profit enterprise.
> See if there is a commercial need for your services. The AURORA Trust knew there was demand for survey work not only in the realm of exploration but in the commercial sector, too.
> Brainstorm ways to provide fee-based value to the community. AURORA’s co-founder Ian Koblick says the nonprofit MarineLab he operates in Key Largo, Fla., charges workshop fees for students who participate in the foundation's diving and snorkeling programs.
> Determine if you have resources you could rent out to the public or other professionals. Maybe you have event space or even a boat you could offer for charter. AURORA briefly offered tourists the opportunity to tag along on research expeditions and charged a fee for the archaeological tourism opportunity.